How Seattle VCs Are Adapting to the UW TechTransfer Revolution

4/15/09Follow @gthuang

[This is Part 1 of a two-part series on how the process of identifying venture-backed startup opportunities at the University of Washington is evolving---Eds.]

Back in February, we reported on the “VC revolution” happening on the campus of the University of Washington. Six months into her tenure as vice provost of UW TechTransfer, Linden Rhoads sat down for a Q&A with Luke to discuss how her team has been connecting researchers with venture firms and technology companies at an early stage in the commercialization game.

“We’re combing the nation for the venture capitalists who are truly aware of a specific research area,” Rhoads said. “We are hosting meetings for researchers too. You’ll find all over campus that there have been meetings with a researcher, with people from industry, and a venture capitalist. We don’t do this in the hope that a license will come out of it, but that a relationship will come out of it…It’s something most tech transfer offices don’t undertake. It’s a more proactive and longer-term approach.”

It’s also part of a broader shakeup in how the venture community views working with the UW—which has a reputation for winning lots of federal support for research, without translating much of it into startup businesses, as compared to MIT or Stanford University. Certainly not all great startups come from academia, but few would argue that more shouldn’t be coming out of the UW, given its research stature in fields like computer science, advanced materials, and biochemistry. So how are Rhoads’s efforts going over with local venture firms? Will we see more competition among venture capitalists, both locally and nationally, to invest in UW spinouts? How are VCs adjusting their strategy to work with the “new UW” and gain access to top entrepreneurial researchers at an earlier stage, and how will it all play out?

The feedback so far from Seattle-area venture capitalists has been very positive. Brad Silverberg of Ignition Partners speaks for many when he says UW TechTransfer’s work is “very encouraging and definitely going in the right direction.” He adds that it’s a “good thing for all concerned—the UW, entrepreneurs, VCs.” Bill Bryant of Draper Fisher Jurvetson says the investing community is excited and optimistic about changes like “more visibility on promising technologies, additional pre-work to move the technologies closer to the point of commercialization, and soliciting input from numerous outside parties on how best to structure TechTransfer for outside consumption.”

But real change won’t come quickly, or easily. “The enthusiasm is tempered only in light of a 30-plus-year institutional legacy and history that needs to be overcome,” Bryant says. “Will change happen sooner than the rear guard can mount its inevitable counterattack? Finding the appropriate … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://lazowska.cs.washington.edu Ed Lazowska

    As someone who was instrumental in brokering the marriage between Linden Rhoads and the University of Washington, I’m particularly thrilled at the changes she’s making, and at the positive reaction to them.

    However, at the risk of sounding a bit defensive:

    - Yes, UW can and should do better at tech transfer.

    - However, it’s important to remember that UW consistently ranks among the top dozen universities in the nation in a number of key measures related to tech transfer.

    - It’s also worth knowing that under Linden’s predecessor’s predecessor (got that?), Bob Miller, UW developed what was widely regarded as the most innovative and effective software tech transfer practice in the nation.

    - It’s important to remember that the vast majority of university entrepreneurship takes place not through “traditional” tech transfer – licensing – but rather through alumni, who throughout their careers create new companies and transform existing ones.

    - Finally, the reason that Madrona gets so many UW deals is that THEY WORK THEIR TAILS OFF. They’re here all the time – walking the halls, talking to faculty, talking to students, visiting labs, offering advice, awarding prizes, helping with courses, mining the research for commercializable ideas. That’s the same way that Kleiner established its relationship with Stanford in the 1980′s – John Doerr walked the halls. I’ve noticed, over the years, that the less engaged specific VC’s are, the more they tend to complain.

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